Rita’s Tea Room, a small town Cape Breton attraction that once drew tens of thousands of visitors a year on the star power of owner and singer Rita MacNeil, is closing six years after her death.
A post Wednesday on MacNeil’s Facebook page thanked everyone for more than 30 years of patronage, but said the time was right to close the seasonal tea house in Big Pond, N.S.
The former schoolhouse had once been MacNeil’s home.
The Facebook post said a new space has been secured in downtown Sydney, N.S., where MacNeil lived later in life, that will offer a “unique though different experience.”
MacNeil — a famously shy singer-songwriter whose powerful voice explored genres from country to folk and gospel — died following complications from surgery in 2013 at the age of 68.
She recorded more than 24 albums during her career and won the first of three Junos in 1987 at the age of 42 as Most Promising Female Vocalist.
MacNeil is an Order of Canada and Order of Nova Scotia recipient, and along the way became something of a queer and feminist icon.
Her personal story of resiliency and strength — she scrubbed floors and waited tables in Toronto and Ottawa in the ’60s and ’70s, many of those years as a single mother raising a daughter — helped her build a unique connection with her fans.
The Facebook post said the Sydney space will include some of the Rita displays, a gift shop and seating for tea and desserts.
“Your support has been instrumental in keeping my mother’s original business venture alive,” the post said of the decision to close Rita’s Tea Room.
“While an extremely tough decision, especially knowing how wonderful all the folks visiting have been, we feel it the right one at this time.”
In 1994, the Nova Scotia government contributed $86,000 toward a $620,000 expansion of Rita’s Tea Room to include an exhibit area and gift shop featuring MacNeil memorabilia, local culture and history.
At the time, the tea room attracted 30,000 visitors a year, and the expansion was expected to draw an additional 30,000.
“An increasing number of people from outside this region want to know more about Rita MacNeil, her music and her Cape Breton roots,” Ross Bragg, Nova Scotia’s economic renewal minister, said at the time.
MacNeil’s songs had a deep impact on her listeners, in particular Flying On Your Own, her anthem of personal independence, and Working Man, her ode to the miner’s life.
Along the way, the red clapboard house became a mecca for fans who bought millions of her albums, causing traffic jams and long lines.
“Strangely enough, it attracts a great deal of people,” MacNeil said in 1993 of her 60-seat tea house.
“It was the house where I spent a number of years with my two children, and it was originally built in 1937 as a one-room schoolhouse. When I got the idea to turn it into a tea house, it was certainly on a meagre scale — just thinking a few people would come by. I’ve always invited people to drop by for tea.”
Catabolism: Capitalism’s Frightening Future
“Out of the frying pan, into the fire” is an apt description of our current place in history. No matter what you think of globalization, I believe we’ll soon discover that capitalism without it is much, much worse.
No one needs to convince establishment economists, politicians and pundits that the absence of globalization and growth spells trouble. They’ve pushed globalization as the Viagra of economic growth for years. But globalization has never been popular with everyone. Capitalism’s critics recognize that it generates tremendous wealth and power for a tiny fraction of the Earth’s seven billion people, makes room for some in the middle class, but keeps most of humanity destitute and desperate, while trashing the planet and jeopardizing human survival for generations to come.
Around the world, social movements believe “Another World Is Possible!” when neoliberal globalization is replaced by a more democratic, equitable, Earth-friendly society. They assume that any future without globalization is bound to be an improvement. But now it appears that this assumption may be wrong. In fact, future generations may someday look back on capitalism’s growth phase as the dynamic days of industrial civilization, a naïve time before anyone realized that the worst was yet to come.
The Return of Scarce Oil and Peak Debt
Today, rising energy prices and ballooning debt are poised to strangle the global economy once again. These suffocating conditions brought the economy to its knees in 2008. Afterward, fracking helped increase the supply and lower the price of oil and gas temporarily. Meanwhile, debt-dependent cash infusions in the form of bailouts, low interest rates, corporate tax cuts and leveraged stock buy-backs were injected into the economy to prop up stock prices and profit margins. 
But now, despite emergency infusions of hydrocarbons and cash, debilitating debt and rising energy prices are returning with a vengeance. Governments have used every trick at their disposal to keep growth alive and profits high. But debt-driven trickery cannot overcome the underlying reality: growth cannot survive without cheap, abundant energy. Fueling growth with debt instead of real energy is a disaster in the making.
Economists and politicians refuse to admit it, but Age of Fossil Fuels has reached its apex. The rapacious flight to the top was powered by the Earth’s dwindling hydrocarbon reserves. From these lofty heights, the drastic drop-off ahead appears perilous. As fossil fuel extraction fails to meet global demand, economic contraction and downward mobility will become the new normal and growth will fade into memory. But this new growth-less future may bear no resemblance to the equitable Green economy activists have been calling for.
Can Capitalism Survive Without Growth?
Optimistic Green reformers like Al Gore, Jeremy Rifkin and Lester Brown see a window of opportunity at this historic juncture. For years, they’ve jetted from one conference to another, tirelessly trying to convince world leaders to embrace their planet-saving plans for a sustainable, carbon-free society before it’s too late. They hope energy scarcity and economic contraction can act as wake-up calls, spurring world leaders to embrace their Green New Deals that promise to save capitalism and the planet.
Their message is clear: rapid, fossil-fueled growth is burning through the Earth’s remaining reserves of precious hydrocarbons and doing untold damage to the biosphere in the process. Businesses must lead the way out of this dangerous dead end by adopting renewable energy and other planet-healing practices, even if it means substantial reductions in growth and profits. But, despite their dire warnings, hard work, innovative proposals and good intentions, most heads of state and captains of industry continue to politely ignore them.
Meanwhile, more radical activists also hope climate chaos, peak oil and economic contraction will become game changers. Many assume that globalization and growth are so essential that capitalism must fail without them. And, as it does, social movements will seize the opportunity to transform this collapsing system into a more equitable, sustainable one, free of capitalism’s insatiable need to expand at all costs.
Both the green growth reformers and anti-growth radicals misunderstand the true nature of capitalism and underestimate its ability to withstand—and profit handsomely from—the great contraction ahead. Growth is not the primary driving force behind capitalism—profit is. When the overall economic pie is expanding, many firms find it easier to realize profits big enough to continually increase their share price. But periods of crisis and collapse can generate huge profits as well. In fact, during systemic contractions, the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism creates lucrative opportunities for hostile takeovers, mergers and leveraged buyouts, allowing the most predatory firms to devour their competition.
Capitalism is a profit-maximizing economic machine. It is not loyal to any person, nation, corporation or ideology. It doesn’t care about the planet or believe in justice, equality, fairness, liberty, human rights, democracy, world peace or even economic growth and the “free market.” Its overriding obsession is maximizing the return on invested capital. Capitalism will pose as a loyal friend of other beliefs and values, or betray them in an instant, if it advances the drive for profit … that’s why it’s called the bottom line!
Growth is important because it tends to improve the bottom line. And ultimately, capitalism may not last without it. But those who profit from this economic system are not about to throw up their hands and walk off the stage of history just because boom has turned to bust. Crisis, conflict and collapse can be extremely profitable for the opportunists who know where and when to invest.
But how long can this go on? Can capitalism’s profit motive remain the driving force behind a contracting economy lacking the vital energy surplus needed to fuel growth? Definitely, but the consequences for society will be grim indeed. Without access to the cheap, abundant energy needed to extract resources, power factories, maintain infrastructure and transport goods around the world, capitalism’s productive sector will lose its position as the most lucrative source of profit and investment. Transnational corporations will find that their giant economies of scale and global chains of production have become liabilities rather than assets. As profits dwindle, factories close, workers are laid off, benefits and wages are slashed, unions are broken and pension funds are raided – whatever it takes to remain solvent.
Declining incomes and living standards mean poorer consumers, contracting markets and shrinking tax revenues. Of course, collapse can be postponed by using debt to artificially extend the solvency of businesses, consumers and governments. But eventually, paying off debts with interest becomes futile without growth. And, when the credit bubbles burst, the defaults, foreclosures, bankruptcies and financial fiascos that follow can paralyze the economy.
Without the capacity for re-energizing growth, the recessions and depressions of times past, that temporarily disrupted production between long periods of expansion, now become chronic features of a contracting system. On the downside of peak oil, neither liberal programs to increase employment and stimulate growth nor conservative tax and regulatory cuts have any substantial impact on the economy’s descending spiral. Both production and demand remain so constricted by energy austerity that any brief growth spurts are quickly stifled by resurgent energy prices. Instead, periods of severe contraction and collapse may be buffered between brief plateaus of relative stability.
Catabolism: The Final Phase of Capitalism
In a growth-less, contracting economy, the profit motive can have a powerful catabolic impact on capitalist society. The word “catabolism” comes from the Greek and is used in biology to refer to the condition whereby a living thing feeds on itself. Thus, catabolic capitalism is a self-cannibalizing system whose insatiable hunger for profit can only be fed by devouring the society that sustains it.As it rampages down the road to ruin, this system gorges itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another.
The riotous train scene in the film The Marx Brothers Go West captures the essence of catabolic capitalism. The wacky brothers commandeer a locomotive that runs out of fuel. In desperation, they ransack the train, breaking up the passenger cars, ripping up seats and tearing down roofs and walls to feed the steam engine. By the end of the scene, terrified passengers desperately cling to a skeletal train, reduced to little more than a fast moving furnace on wheels.
In the previous era of industrial expansion, catabolic capitalists lurked in the shadows of the growth economy. They were the illicit arms, drugs and sex traffickers; the loan sharks, debt collectors and repo-men; the smugglers, pirates, poachers, black market merchants and pawnbrokers; the illegal waste dumpers, shady sweatshop operators and unregulated mining, fishing and timber operations.
However, as the productive sector contracts, this corrupt cannibalistic sector emerges from the shadows and metastasizes rapidly, thriving off conflict, crime and crisis; hoarding and speculation; insecurity and desperation. Catabolic capitalism flourishes because it can still generate substantial profits by dodging legalities and regulations; stockpiling scarce resources and peddling arms to those fighting over them; scavenging, breaking down and selling off the assets of the decaying productive and public sectors; and preying upon the sheer desperation of people who can no longer find gainful employment elsewhere.
Without enough energy to generate growth, catabolic capitalists stoke the profit engine by taking over troubled businesses, selling them off for parts, firing the workforce and pilfering their pensions. Scavengers, speculators and slumlords buy up distressed and abandoned properties – houses, schools, factories, office buildings and malls – strip them of valuable resources, sell them for scrap or rent them to people desperate for shelter. Illicit lending operations charge outrageous interest rates and hire thugs or private security firms to shake down desperate borrowers or force people into indentured servitude to repay loans. Instead of investing in struggling productive enterprises, catabolic financiers make windfall profits by betting against growth through hoarding and speculative short selling of securities, currencies and commodities.
Social benefits, legal and regulatory protections and modern society itself will also be sacrificed to feed the profit engine. During a period of contraction, venal catabolic capitalists put their lawyers and lobbyists to work tearing down any legal barriers to their insatiable appetite for profit. Regulatory agencies that once provided some protection from polluters, dangerous products, unsafe workplaces, labor exploitation, financial fraud and corporate crime are dismantled to feed the voracious fires of avarice.
Society’s governing institutions of justice, law and order become early victims of this catabolic crime spree. Public safety is stripped down, privatized and sold to those who can still afford it. As budgets for courts, prisons and law enforcement shrivel, private security firms hire unemployed cops to break strikes, provide corporate security and guard the wealthy in their gated communities. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be forced to rely on alarm systems, dogs, guns and – if we’re lucky – watchful neighbors to deal with rising crime. Privatized prisons will profit by contracting convict labor to the highest bidders.
As tax-starved public services and social welfare programs bleed out from deep budget cuts, profit-hungry capitalists pick over the carcasses of bankrupt governments. Revenues for social security, food stamps and health care programs are chopped to the bone. Public transportation and decaying highways are transformed into private thoroughfares, maintained by convict labor or indentured workers. Corporations scarf up failing public utilities, water treatment, waste management and sewage disposal systems to provide businesses and wealthy communities with reliable power, water and waste removal. Schools and libraries go broke, while exclusive private academies employ a fraction of the jobless teachers and university professors to educate a shrinking class of affluent students.
A Dark Alliance
Cannibalistic profiteers can thrive in a growth-less environment for quite some time, but ultimately, an economy bent on devouring itself has a dismal, dead-end future. Nevertheless, changing course will be difficult because, as the catabolic sector expands at the expense of society, powerful cannibalistic capitalists are bound to forge influential alliances, poison and paralyze the political system and block all efforts to pull society out of its death spiral.
Catabolic enterprises are not the only profit-makers in a growth-less economy. Even a contracting economy must extract energy and other resources from the Earth. Unless the profit motive is removed by bringing these assets under public control, corporate real estate, timber, water, energy and mining corporations will deploy their lobbying muscle to completely privatize these vital resources and enhance their bottom line with government subsidies, tax breaks and “regulatory relief.” The growing capital, energy and technology commitments needed to commodify scarce resources may cut deeply into profit margins. As less solvent outfits fail, the remaining politically connected resource conglomerates may maximize their profits by forming cartels to corner markets, hoard vital resources and send prices soaring while blocking all attempts at public regulation and rationing.
The extractive and the catabolic sectors of capitalism have a lot in common. An alliance between them could put irresistible pressure on failing federal and state governments to open public lands and coastlines to unregulated offshore drilling, fracking, coal mining and tar sands extraction. Scofflaw resource extractors and criminal poaching operations proliferate in corrupt, catabolic conditions where legal protections are ignored and shady deals can be struck with local power brokers to maximize the exploitation of labor and resources. To pay off government debt, national and state parks may be sold and transformed into expensive private resorts while public lands and national forests are auctioned off to energy, timber and mining corporations.
As globalization runs down, this grim catabolic future is eager to replace it. Already, an ugly gang of demagogic politicians around the world hopes to ride this catabolic crisis into power. Their goal is to replace globalization with bombastic nationalist authoritarianism. These xenophobic demagogues are becoming the political face of catabolic capitalism. They promise to restore their country to prosperity and greatness by expelling immigrants while carelessly ignoring the disastrous costs of fossil fuel addiction and military spending. Anger, insecurity and need to believe that a strong leader can restore “the good old days” will guarantee them a fervent following even though their false promises and fake solutions can only make matters worse.
Is Catabolic Capitalism Inevitable?
So, what about Green capitalism? Isn’t there money to be made in renewable energy? What about redesigning transportation systems, buildings and communities? Couldn’t capitalists profit by producing alternative energy technologies if government helped finance the unprofitable, but necessary, infrastructure projects needed to bring them online? Wouldn’t a Green New Deal be far more beneficial than catabolic catastrophe?
Catabolic capitalism is not inevitable. However, in a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington. But Green capitalism is another story.
As both radical Greens and the corporate establishment realize, Green capitalism is essentially an oxymoron. Truly Green policies, programs and projects contradict capitalism’s primary directive – profit before all else! This doesn’t mean there aren’t profitable niche markets for some products and services that are both ecologically benign and economically beneficial. It means that capitalism’s overriding profit motive is fundamentally at odds with ecological balance and the general welfare of humanity.
While people and the planet can thrive in an ecologically balanced society, the self-centered drive for profit and power cannot. A healthy economy that encourages people to take care of each other and the planet is incompatible with exploiting labor and ransacking naturefor profit.Thus, capitalists will resist, to the bitter end, any effort to replace their malignant economy with a healthy one.
Would the transition to a sustainable society be expensive? Of course. Our petroleum-addicted infrastructure of tankers, refineries, pipelines and power plants; cities, suburbs, gas stations and freeways; shopping centers, mega-farms, fast food franchises and supermarkets would have to be replaced with smaller towns fed by local farms and powered by decentralized, renewable energy. But the cost of making this Green transition is a priceless bargain compared to the suicidal consequences of catabolic collapse.
Is Resistance Futile?
Before we decide that resistance is futile, it’s important to realize that the converging energy, economic and ecological disasters bearing down on us all have the potential to turn people against catabolic capitalism and toward a more just, planet-friendly future. The approaching period of catabolic collapse presents some strategic opportunities to those who would like to rid the world of this system as soon as possible
For example, in the near future, energy scarcity and economic contraction may manifest themselves as a paralyzing financial meltdown. Interest-based banking cannot handle economic contraction. Without perpetual growth, businesses, consumers, students, homeowners, governments and banks (who constantly borrow from each other) cannot pay-off their debts with interest. If default goes viral, the banking system goes down.
When the banking system finally implodes, credit freezes, financial assets vaporize, currency values fluctuate wildly, trade shuts down and governments impose draconian measures to maintain their authority. Few Americans have any experience with this kind of systemic seizure. They assume there will always be food in the supermarkets, gas in the pumps, money in the ATMs, electricity in the power lines and medicine in the pharmacies and hospitals.
During a financial meltdown, government officials find it difficult to retain public confidence; people blame them for running the economy into the ditch and suspect that their pseudo-solutions are actually self-serving schemes designed to keep themselves on top. Consequently, this crippling crisis could serve as a powerful wake-up call and a potential turning point if those who want to abolish catabolic capitalism are prepared to make the most of it.
But crises don’t necessarily incite positive responses. Power will be decisive in the unfolding struggle over the future of our species and the planet; and those that benefit from the status quo are bent on holding on to it. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine warns us that those in power will exploit the traumas caused by major catastrophes to rally support for their own disastrous agenda (like invading Iraq after 9-11 or expelling the Black community from New Orleans after Katrina).
In the midst of shocking disasters those in power play upon our fears and prejudices to keep us passive, turn us against each other and under their control. If we resist all attempts to keep us apathetic, distracted and divided, they seldom hesitate to use every method at their disposal to keep themselves on top, including intimidation, coercion and brute force. Each time they succeed, life becomes more miserable for everyone but them.
Crisis only becomes our ally when popular anger is channeled into transformative insurrection against the system that causes it. How people respond to systemic disintegration will be pivotal. Who will be blamed? What “solutions” will gain support? Who will people listen to, trust and follow in times of extreme hardship, insecurity and unrest? To turn the tide against catabolic capitalism, activists must prepare people for the cascading crises that lie ahead. They must become trusted responders: defining the problem; organizing grassroots resilience and relief; and building a powerful insurrection against those who profit from disaster. But even this is not enough. To nurture the transition toward a thriving, just, ecologically stable society, all of these struggles must be interwoven and infused with an inspirational vision of how much better life could be if we freed ourselves from this dysfunctional, profit-obsessed system once and for all.
Climate chaos alone will impose many hardships, from extreme droughts, water scarcity, farm failures and food shortages to forest fires and floods, rising sea levels, mega-storms and acidified oceans. Movement organizers must help people anticipate, adapt to, and survive these hardships—but social movements cannot stop there. They must help people mount the kind of political resistance that can strip the fossil fuel industry of its power and leverage their own growing influence to demand that society’s remaining resources be re-directed toward a Green transition.
 Despite record corporate profits and cash flow, at least a third of the buyback shares are being purchased with borrowed money, bringing the corporate debt to an all-time high, not only in an absolute sense but also in relation to profits, assets and the overall size of the economy.
 The term “catabolic capitalism” used here is somewhat different from the theory of catabolic collapse developed by John Michael Greer. Greer looks at the demise of all civilizations (capitalist and non-capitalist) as a catabolic process. How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse .
 Banks’ retained earnings and shareholder capital only amount to 2-9% of their loan portfolio, so it doesn’t take much of a loss to put them under.
Capitalism and Robbery
“The power of abstraction,” Karl Marx noted, is absolutely crucial to the theoretical analysis of historical systems, as exemplified by his critique of capitalist political economy.2 But while the force of abstraction is indispensable to any attempt to grasp the inner character of capital, also implicit in Marx’s historical materialism is the notion that capitalism can never be reduced simply to its internal logic.3 Rather, it is also the product of numerous contingent historical conditions that form the empirical boundaries and limits within which the system operates and are integral to its functioning. Thus, historical capitalism cannot be understood aside from its existence as a colonial/imperialist world system in which the violent exercise of power is an ever-present reality. In order to uncover the material conditions governing concrete capitalism, including its interface with land, nonwage labor, and corporeal life, it is therefore necessary to go beyond the inner reality of exploitation, and address expropriation, or the process of appropriation without equivalent (or without reciprocity) through which capital has sought to determine its wider parameters.
The concept of expropriation is commonly seen on the left as a mere synonym for the notion of primary accumulation—a category derived from classical liberal political economy that Marx subjected to ruthless critique.4 In fact, even in those instances where he referred to “so-called primitive [primary] accumulation”—taking this concept directly from Adam Smith, who had introduced the notion of previous accumulation (or previous stock)—Marx immediately sought to transform this into the altogether different question of expropriation, seeing this as constituting the essential precondition of capitalism, as well as its continuous reality.5
For Marx, the expropriation on which capitalism was based had nothing to do with “so-called” previous accumulation, or the “nursery tale,” propounded by classical political economy, that the capitalist system had its origin in abstinence and the consequent buildup of savings.6 Indeed, Marx, as Marxian political economist Michael Perelman writes, adamantly “dismissed Smith’s mythical ‘previous’ accumulation, in order to call attention to the actual historical experience,” characterized by rampant expropriation.7 The preconditions of capitalism, Marx explained, were to be found in a brutal system of robbery, manifested in the form of enclosures, the usurpation of the land, the dispossession of the peasantry, and the pillage of the colonized world—giving rise to proletarianization, genocide, and slavery. All of this involved the transfer of claims to existing property/wealth, along with the wholesale expropriation of populations, who were subjected to some of the worst forms of forcible oppression, removing them from the land and ownership of the means of reproduction, and transforming them into proletarians who had no way to live except by selling their labor power. This extended as well to capitalism’s expropriation of the soil itself. Such violent expropriation, characterizing the entire mercantilist era, was not merely a predatory precursor to capitalism proper—as thinkers like Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter asserted in the twentieth century—but was integral to historical capitalism and colonialism, determining the very boundaries of the system, and carried forward into the modern era.8
Thus “expropriation of the masses of the people from the soil,” the dispossession of indigenous populations, and the pillage of the Americas, Africa, and Asia by colonial conquest set the stage for the rise of industrial capitalism and the new system of accumulation.9 It was this, Marx stressed, not previous accumulation based on abstinence, that led to “the genesis of the industrial capitalist.”10 “Expropriation” constituted “the starting point of the capitalist mode of production.”11 Such ruthless expropriation did not end with the mercantilist era. Rather, the bloody usurpations of land, labor, and corporeal life on a world scale has continued to form the boundary conditions of capitalism up to the present day.
Although Marx’s key concepts of exploitation and expropriation necessarily overlapped to some extent, they were nonetheless analytically distinct, forming an identity-in-difference and at the same time difference-in-identity, or a dialectical relation. Exploitation related primarily to the appropriation of surplus value through a formal process of equal exchange in which surplus value was extracted from the direct producers. Conversely, expropriation was directed at those conditions where a quid pro quo did not operate, even formally, and where outright robbery or “profit upon expropriation” occurred.12 In late capitalism and late imperialism, equal exchange is increasingly a veil concealing a robbery system—with widening spheres of unequal exchange. This system of robbery, implemented by monopolistic multinational corporations, encompasses natural conditions of production and life itself.
As Michael D. Yates argues in Can the Working Class Change the World?, “there can be no [real historical] separation between exploitation and expropriation.” While the former allows us to understand the specificities of the appropriation of unpaid labor from workers in the production process, the latter brings to the fore “racism, patriarchy, environmental catastrophe,” and imperialism.13 Hence, Marx’s concept of expropriation, seen in a complex dialectical and historical relation to exploitation, is the key to understanding the multiple oppressions that constitute capitalism as a historical system and its overall relation to its material environment.
The concept of expropriation in Marx’s analysis had its locus classicus in his critique of James Stewart’s eighteenth-century treatment of profit upon expropriation (as opposed to profit upon accumulation), which was to influence his two major discussions of primary expropriation in the Grundrisse and Capital. For Marx, expropriation was appropriation without equivalent or appropriation without reciprocity.14
Although there is a vast literature on the concept of primitive accumulation, the term primitive was a mistranslation, as Marx was referring to what in classical political economy was designated as previous or primary accumulation.15 Moreover, Marx treated the phrase pejoratively, entitling his discussion “So-Called Primitive [Primary] Accumulation,” and indicating in a number of places his disdain for the term, which in classical political economy had been designed to justify the current order.16
For Marx, the inner logic of capital was explained as a product of exploitation in a theoretical context that specified equal exchange. Yet, he never failed to stress that the background conditions of the system, along with its external development and expansion, were governed by force and fraud.17 This aspect of his critique was meant to be taken up systematically later on as he moved from the abstract to the concrete, from the pure logic of capital to the ground of the world economy and crisis (that is, imperialism).18 An underlying perception of the role of expropriation in determining the historical boundaries of capitalism informed his and Frederick Engels’s discussions of slavery, patriarchy, and the metabolic rift, or the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”19
A renewed focus on expropriation is therefore essential today if we want to understand the historical relation between the accumulative society/processes associated with exchange value, and capital’s continuing robbery of various nonaccumulative societies/processes related to use value.20 The issue here becomes not simply one of the exploitation of labor, but the expropriation of household economies (and household/subsistence labor), corporeal life, the periphery, and the planetary environment. Historically, appropriation without equivalent is the most common form of class-hierarchal relations, manifested in complex ways in various tributary modes of production.21 However, serving to distinguish capitalist society historically from its precapitalist precursors, in this respect, is the greater systematization and scale assumed by profits upon expropriation, beginning with the mercantilist period, but extending into all the later stages of capitalist development.
In the ruling liberal ideology, such expropriation, whether in the form of slavery, war, genocide, unequal exchange, or the exercise of monopoly power, is treated as either an accident unrelated to the capitalist system or as an inevitable product of human nature raised to the level of society as a whole. Violence and robbery, despite their pervasiveness in global capitalism, are thus commonly portrayed as disconnected from the inner nature and logic of the economic system rooted in quid pro quo. Nevertheless, the sordid history of capitalism is hard to pass off as a series of accidents or anomalies. The last five centuries involve a dismal chronology of colonialism/imperialism, racial capitalism, wars of aggression, and patriarchal expropriation of household labor. These particular social ills of capitalism are accompanied by the systematic violation of what the great German chemist Justus von Liebig called the “law of compensation,” or the need to replenish the constituent elements taken from the earth.22
While Marx devoted the greater part of his critique of political economy to analyzing capital’s inner dynamic of exploitation, the wider reality of expropriation was thus never far from his mind, and it was revealed in the margins of his analysis. It was clearly slated to be taken up more fully in his planned volumes on landed property, wage labor, the state, international trade and the world market, and crises—all of which represented successively more concrete levels of analysis. In Marx’s view, colonization was never simply about the expropriation of the land, but also encompassed the “extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population.”23 It was this recognition of the role of expropriation of the land and people that accounts for much of the extraordinary richness and power of Marx and Engels’s historical observations. The revolution against capital necessitated “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people,” or, in other words, the expropriation of the expropriators.24
Crucial investigations into the role expropriation played within Marx’s critique of capitalism and the application of this to the historical analysis of capitalist development have emerged recently in a number of places, including: social reproduction theory (for example, the work of Nancy Fraser), analyses of racial capitalism (as in the writings of Michael Dawson and Sven Beckert), and Marxian ecological theory (particularly treatments of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift).25 Glen Sean Coulthard has argued in Red Skin White Masks that examination of the violent expropriation of indigenous peoples requires that we see “dispossession as a co-foundational feature of our understanding of and critical engagement with capitalism, open[ing] up the possibility of developing a more ecologically attentive critique of colonial capitalist accumulation.”26
Our analysis, in what follows, is designed to illustrate the crucial importance of the theoretical insights stemming from activation of Marx’s concept of expropriation. We focus on three historical moments of massive expropriation of people and the earth: Moment I: The Industrialization of Agriculture and the Metabolic Rift; Moment II: Dust Bowls of Empire; and Moment III: Imperialism in the Anthropocene. The intention here is obviously not to provide a detailed, much less comprehensive, analysis of any of these critical phases of development, but rather to highlight in each case how a historical-materialist method encompassing expropriation as well as exploitation can help capture the various contradictions and conflicts of capitalism within a wider lens.27 If Marx famously said that the main (internal) barrier to capital was capital itself, he also indicated that capital’s main external limit was its refusal to accept any limits whatsoever, turning all boundaries into barriers to be transgressed by the capitalist juggernaut. Faced with capitalism’s destruction of the Irish ecology in the nineteenth century, he raised the question of “ruin or revolution”—a question even more relevant in the twenty-first century in the context of capitalism’s disruption of the entire Earth System.28
Moment I: The Industrialization of Agriculture and the Metabolic Rift
The industrialization of agriculture in the nineteenth century rested upon the long historical emergence of capitalism as a distinct socioeconomic order. As Beckert details in the Empire of Cotton, “imperial expansion, expropriation, and slavery” were critical to its formation.29 Throughout the age of mercantilism, from the mid–fifteenth to mid–eighteenth centuries—a period Beckert refers to as “war capitalism”—earlier property forms and productive relations were dissolved via the enclosure of the commons and imperialism, formally transferring title of land to the bourgeois class. The racialized characteristics of capitalism were embedded from the start as Africa, Asia, and the Americas were colonized while genocidal campaigns were waged against indigenous peoples and Africans were enslaved to work on plantations.30 These conditions contributed to the massive transfer of wealth to England and other European nations. Marx explained that this process of primary expropriation was pivotal to the English Industrial Revolution.31 Cotton was associated with the robbery of nature and nonwaged labor, as well as the exploitation of waged labor, providing the cheap materials essential to the rising textile factories, where industrial laborers subsisted on imported potatoes from the increasingly exhausted fields of Ireland.
The First Agricultural Revolution in the capitalist age coincided with the enclosures, from the late fifteenth to early nineteenth centuries, and the formal transfer of land titles. Peasants and small land holders were driven from the land, pauperized, proletarianized, and forced to sell their labor power for wages to purchase the means of subsistence. These changes ushered in a heightened alienation from nature, a more distinct town-country division, and specialized food and fiber production. The Second Agricultural Revolution, from 1830 to 1880, was characterized by the development of soil chemistry, the growth of the fertilizer trade and industry, the increase in the scale and intensity of agricultural production, and “land” improvements, such as imposing uniformity across fields, making them easier to apply modern technologies. Additionally, intensified agricultural production required massive fertilizer inputs in order to enrich the soil.32 In numerous ways, this period is the embodiment of appropriation without equivalent and without reciprocity.
Liebig played a pioneering role in studying the changing soil chemistry in relation to the advancing capitalist industrial agriculture. He noted that the production of crops depended on the soil containing essential nutrients—such as, but not limited to, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. He explained that a rational system of agriculture must be governed by the “law of compensation” or the law of replacement.33 The nutrients that are absorbed by plants as they grow must be restored to the soil to support future crops. But this was far from the case in Western Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century. Liebig noted that the British high-farming techniques constituted a “robbery system,” leading to the despoliation of the soil.34 Marx, who studied Liebig’s work, detailed how the application of industrial practices to increase yields and the transportation of food and fiber to distant markets in cities were generating a rift in the soil nutrient cycle. In Capital, he famously observed that capitalist agriculture progressively “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth,” preventing the “return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil.” As a result, “all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility.”35
Marx thus presented a systematic analysis of how industrialized agriculture robbed the land of necessary nutrients. But he also recognized and provided the basis for assessing the interlocking oppressions and processes of expropriation that accompanied this soil crisis. As the nutrients from the countryside accumulated as waste in the cities or were washed away to sea as part of urban refuse, a variety of means were sought to replenish the land.36 In particular, between 1840 and 1880, an international fertilizer trade was established, which involved shipping millions of tons of guano and nitrates from Peru and Chile to the Global North. The mining of guano was largely rooted in expropriation of land, labor, and corporeal life, all of which were necessary to make this fertilizer so profitable. Initially male convicts and slaves worked as forced labor on the guano islands, using picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and sacks. As the availability of slaves declined, Chinese workers were imported as part of the “coolie” labor system.37
Former slavers used coercion, deceit, kidnapping, and questionable contracts to set up this new racialized regime of bonded labor, which supplied workers for colonies and former colonies throughout the world. Over ninety thousand Chinese workers were shipped to Peru during the heyday of the guano trade—approximately 10 percent died in passage due mainly to poor treatment and malnourishment. The most unfortunate unfree laborers were sent to the guano islands, where the total workforce fluctuated between two hundred to eight hundred workers at any given moment, but where lives were used up rapidly—considered of less value than the guano that they dug up.38 Only men were sent to these islands, where over “one hundred armed soldiers” kept guard, preventing workers from committing suicide by running into the ocean.39 Marx described this “coolie” system as a form of “disguised slavery.”40 Eye-witness accounts noted that these Chinese workers were treated as expendable, regularly flogged and whipped if they did not fulfill the demanding work expectations. They labored in the hot sun, filling sacks and wheelbarrows with guano, which they then transported to a chute that loaded the boats. Guano dust coated their bodies and filled their lungs. The smell was overwhelming. One account described the conditions as “the infernal art of using up human life to the very last inch,” as the lives of the workers were very short.41 Several British shipmasters were “horrified at the cruelties…inflicted on the Chinese, whose dead bodies they described as floating round the islands.”42
Here we see how expropriation works at the boundaries of the capitalist system. Guano, which had been used for thousands of years to enrich the fields of Peru, was quickly being exhausted to replenish the fields of the Global North. The sea birds that deposited hundreds of feet of guano on the islands were often killed, as they were deemed a nuisance to extractive operations. Guano was being removed at a much faster rate than it accumulated. The new racialized labor system that was imposed was largely predicated on brutally expropriated bonded labor, enhancing accumulation at the core of the system. The conditions resulted in a corporeal rift, which undermined living conditions, leading to poor health and an early death for many of the workers, who were simply replaced by other imported laborers. All of this, moreover, was meant to make possible a continuation of a robbery system where the soil in Europe and North America was being systematically robbed of its nutrients.
These conditions of expropriation were a central component of supporting the Second Agricultural Revolution accompanying the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution, in which cotton was so integral, had been based on the triangular slave trade. It was after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which formally abolished slavery within most British colonies, that the British turned to the “coolies” from Asia, a disguised form of slavery as a way of replacing open slavery, with new forms of bonded labor. Guano, in this sense, was part of a second triangular trade, geared to the industrialization of agriculture, British high farming, and the need to restore the impoverished soil by means of an imperial system, involving the worst extremes of labor exploitation and the expropriation of corporeal life.
In the nineteenth century, women were at the center of the Industrial Revolution, constituting the majority of the core industrial workforce in England, especially in the cotton, silk, wool, and lace sectors of textile production.43 Marx took detailed notes regarding their positions within the workforce and the conditions under which they labored. Along with Engels, he documented the specific types of hazards that these women were exposed to, which created an array of health problems that shortened their lives, such as respiratory issues from inhaling fibers. Both working-class men and women experienced forms of corporeal degradation associated with their working conditions, but the specifics varied according to the types of work in which they were concentrated.44 Additionally, women received much lower wages than men and had a disproportionate responsibility for social reproductive work to support whole families, to the extent that this additional activity was possible, given the long working hours.45
Women in this period were superexploited in the industrial workforce, producing a large share of surplus value in factories, while at the same time they were compelled to produce use values, which served as a free gift to capital, through their work in the home in the process of reproducing labor.46 Under these conditions, which threatened the very existence of the working-class family, women, though responsible for the social reproduction of the family and the labor force, could scarcely maintain their own existence. The double day was not a creation of late capitalism, but rather was present at the very birth of industrial capitalism—at a time when the working day (including the time necessary to get to and from work) for women was often twelve hours or longer, six days a week.
For the working classes, wage exploitation was also in a sense nutritional exploitation, as wages were mainly expended on the most basic foods necessary for survival. Intensive agricultural production in England, which was supported by imported fertilizer, contributed to the creation of a new international food regime after the Irish potato famine and the end of the Corn Laws in 1845–46. What Marx himself called the new food regime involved a shift toward more of a meat-based system, in which additional land was being devoted to animal production, geared to serving the upper classes.47 In contrast, as Marx and Engels detailed, the working class subsisted on poor-quality and inadequate diets, consisting largely of bread and very few vegetables.48 To make matters worse, the food, drink, and medicine that was available was adulterated, containing a vast array of contaminates, such as mercury, chalk, sand, feces, and strychnine. Regular consumption of these materials contributed to various health ailments, chronic gastritis, and death. Women tended to be the most malnourished, as they consumed less food and ate last within families. Conditions were worse in England’s colony of Ireland, which was forced to export its soil (nutrients) and its capital to England.49
The industrialization of agriculture was intimately connected to the transgression of natural limits, given the interlocking expropriation of land, labor, and corporeal life that shaped the social metabolism and that constantly expanded capitalism’s intensive creative destruction. The new system required the exponential growth of external inputs from the environment. Metabolic rifts, the imperial draining of wealth from the Global South, and a system of exploitation that had expropriation as its background condition defined the rise of capitalism in the nineteenth century.
Moment II: Dust Bowls of Empire
The age of “so-called primitive accumulation” or primary expropriation was the era of early colonialism, including the development of white settler colonialism, of which the United States was a prime example. The United States was seen from the beginning, in the words of George Washington, as a “rising empire.” The American Revolution was induced in part by the British Proclamation of 1763, which limited the movement of settlers into the Ohio Valley to the West. With the victory of the thirteen colonies, the land in the Ohio Valley was opened to land speculators and settlers. The Iroquois Confederacy, so admired by Marx and Engels, was swept aside in around a dozen years. Almost all of their land was expropriated and they were forced onto a few small reserves. Washington termed the Indians “beasts of prey” and ordered his troops during the American Revolution to invade the Iroquois villages, killing men, women, and children, and destroying their crops in a war of absolute extermination.50
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the demand for U.S. cotton boomed to feed the textile industries of England, giving new life to the slave system. As Marx emphasized, plantation slavery with its monocrops and brutalized slave labor was ecologically inefficient (however successful it was in terms of capital accumulation). It rapidly exhausted the soil, generating a westward movement as plantation owners sought to bring virgin land into cultivation.51 Agriculture in New England was only marginally less destructive to the soil and forests, pushing populations and capital ever further to the West, while much of the grain produced (following the abolition of the Corn Laws in Britain in 1846) was being exported to England in a global environmental rift.52 In his excerpts from agricultural chemist J. W. Johnston’s Notes on North America, Marx emphasized the former’s observation with respect to “the common system…of North America of selling everything for which a market can be got [hay, corn, potatoes, etc.]; and taking no trouble to put anything into the soil in return.”53
The building of railroads, the Industrial Revolution in the United States in the 1830s and ’40s, and the opening up of the far West (partly through the seizure of lands from Mexico), all went hand in hand with a process of genocide and displacement of Native Americans, while coupling ecological destruction with capitalist development. In 1890, the Bureau of Census declared the frontier closed (while the Indian Wars were declared over with the massacre at Wounded Knee that same year), after which figures such as Frederick Jackson Turner and Theodore Roosevelt argued for the extension of the U.S. frontier abroad, leading to the Spanish-American War.54 The coming of monopoly capitalism and the age of the giant corporation only expanded the realm of expropriation of people and nature into entirely new spheres.
In visiting Indian Territory in Oklahoma at the very beginning of the twentieth century, where the extractive petroleum industry was booming next door to expropriative farming practices, Weber documented some of the destruction wrought on the earth and the indigenous populations. “With almost lightning speed,” he observed, “everything that stands in the way of capitalistic culture is being crushed.”55 The subjection of the land along with the indigenous population pointed to the socioecological catastrophe that was to ensue.
The Dust Bowl in the 1930s is known as the drought of record in the United States, in many ways symbolizing ecological crisis in the twentieth century. As environmental historian Donald Worster wrote in the 1970s: “In no other instance was there greater or more sustained damage to American land, and there have been few times when so much tragedy was visited on its inhabitants. Not even the depression was more damaging, economically. And in ecological terms we have nothing in the nation’s past…that compares.”56 Almost everyone has heard of the Dust Bowl and can picture the billowing dust storms on the Great Plains and the mass migration of the Okies. Millions of acres were affected and some counties in the heart of the region lost a third of their population, while in Oklahoma almost a third of the farmers were dislodged from their farms.57 The plight of the Dust Bowl region became emblematic of the enormous hardship associated with the Great Depression and rapacious capitalism.
The Dust Bowl Era, despite its vast impact, remains in some contemporary accounts a localized, unforeseeable, and even purely natural disaster—one that occurred at a particular time and that is unlikely to ever happen again, as it was simply an event irrevocably of the past. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The Dust Bowl was the social-historical product of expanding capitalism, empire, and white settler colonialism, all of which contributed to the destruction of land cover and soil erosion. It arose out of the expropriation of indigenous lands, the indigenous peoples themselves, and the fertile soils. Every aspect of the Dust Bowl Era was connected to imperial advance. It was international in nature—the result of a widespread rift in the metabolism between human beings and nature, brought on by capitalist production and culminating in the age of monopoly capital. Today, similar conditions are emerging on a more planetary level, with the result that the Dust Bowl is becoming a prominent historical referent of the climate change era.
To get a concrete sense of the historical underpinnings of the Dust Bowl, it is useful to turn to Thorstein Veblen, whom C. Wright Mills called “the best critic of America that America has produced.”58 For Veblen, writing in 1923 in Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times, the United States was built on “the seizure of the fertile soil and its conversion to private gain.” There was no question whom it had been seized from, since it was a product of the “debauchery and manslaughter entailed on the Indian population of the country.” Aligned with this was the turning of people into “assets” to be held in usufruct through the practice of systematic slavery. In all, “the American plan or policy [as implemented on the frontier],” Veblen wrote, was “a settled practice of converting all public wealth to private gain on a plan of legalised seizure.”59
A key element in this rapacious advance was the destruction of forests and land cover. “Capitalizing on natural resources by treating them as a source of free income,” Veblen argued, encouraged waste and destruction on a vast scale, constituting the normal practice of colonization and empire. For instance, the wasted timber associated with logging and land-clearing practices was so great “that this enterprise of lumber-men during the period since the middle of the nineteenth century has destroyed very appreciably more timber than it has utilised.”60 Most important of all was “the sclerosis of the soil” brought on by processes of expropriation of the earth, without the least attention to conservation.61 In this respect, developments in the United States were similar to other white settler colonies, where indigenous populations were displaced and a process of unlimited ecological destruction was unleashed, resulting in the detachment of people from any form of ecological culture related to being settled inhabitants of a place. Veblen stressed that this problem stemmed from absentee ownership, which was endemic to capitalism.
The Dust Bowl crisis in the 1930s was a product of the historical factors raised by Veblen. The seizure of the land, the genocidal approach to Native Americans, the effects of slavery, the denudation of the land, the “sclerosis of the soil” due to soil exhaustion and soil erosion, and the devastating effects of all this on the working population were all evident. In their 1930s book, The Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion, Graham Vernon Jacks and Robert Orr White wrote:
The history of erosion in the United States is bound up with the pioneer phase in the nation’s development, through the stages of deforestation for agricultural land, timber, fuel, and potash in the east, the development of the monoculture system of agriculture for maize in the Corn Belt and cotton to the south, overstocking and ploughing of the natural grassland areas of the Great Plains, gross overstocking and maltreatment of the range country, overgrazing and over-cultivation on the Pacific coast, and deforestation in the Pacific north-west.62
Hence, it is abundantly clear that dust storms on the plains “were not freaks of Nature” but products of conditions that had long been developing as a result of the robbery and abuse of the land, exacerbated by a shift from subsistence to commercial cash-crop agriculture.63
The colonial history that shaped and propelled these developments also determined their differential effects across communities in the Dust Bowl region and elsewhere. On top of previous losses, including repeated dispossessions and forced relocation, Native American communities in the Great Plains Dust Bowl region lost some 90 percent of their remaining landholdings between 1890 and 1933 and had among the highest poverty rates in the country. In the Oklahoma region with its historic Indian Territory, whites were doing everything they could to wrest the better part of the lands originally set aside for Native Americans. As the new era of crisis descended, appeals for relief went unanswered and then inadequately answered. Black and Latinx farmers too were hit particularly hard by the Dust Bowl and Depression, and New Deal programs were intentionally discriminatory with the result being that black and Latinx farmers did not receive the same relief as white farmers, and migrant farmworkers were often the targets of racist deportation laws and other forms of abuse.64 This led to further concentration of the land, primarily in the hands of white inhabitants and wealthy absentee landlords.
Oklahoma had been the epicenter of a powerful, and in some parts, multiracial and multiethnic progressive movement in the southeast and southwest. The movement pushed for economic, social, and land reform. Some called for revolution. Significant multiracial alliances were sustained into the 1930s, even in the face of organized and violent forces of reaction. Yet, despite the movements’ significant accomplishments and all the relief measures associated with the New Deal, economic and environmental injustice prevailed given the racialized structure of power in the U.S. political economy.65
In all, the efforts to engineer more stable relations between human beings and the environment on the Great Plains following the Dust Bowl were plagued by the persistent, fundamental problem: a voracious system of expropriation of the earth for profit, rooted in “the progressive seizure of natural resources and their conversion to private gain.”66 Its operations widened the rift between human beings and nature, accumulating in a potential for larger catastrophes. The social relations of expropriation that lay behind the economic and ecological contradictions of the period were extended rather than transcended in the decades that followed.
Dust Bowl-like conditions, or what is now sometimes called dustbowlification, did not occur only in the United States in the 1930s, but also in other colonial frontier regions. In 1923, the South African Drought Commission reported “that, as a result of conditions created by the white civilization in South Africa, the power of the land, as a whole, to hold up and absorb water has been diminished.… Herein lies the secret of our ‘drought losses.’”67 A leading South African botanist and critic of the destruction of South Africa’s soil, as well as a leading opponent of apartheid, was the South African Marxist ecologist Edward Roux, author of both The Veld and the Future: A Book on Soil Erosion for South Africans (1946) and Time Longer than Rope: A History of the Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in South Africa (1948). In The Veld and the Future, he wrote: “To save the soil we must all work together, the black man and the white man, the man and the woman.… The soil does not really belong to this person or that who has the right to use a bit of land. It belongs to the nation,” that is, the people as a whole, especially, he insisted, the indigenous African population struggling for freedom “and the children who are yet unborn.”68 Yet, Roux’s ecosocialist vision dominated neither in South Africa nor in the United States. Racial and class divisions, as well as the metabolic rift, continued to reinforce each other within capitalist relations of production.
These problems persist today as a consequence of agribusiness production and hence society is increasingly vulnerable in the face of climate change and land degradation. This is especially evident in the original Dust Bowl region, prompting questions regarding what was learned by the crisis. In 2016, scientists from the University of Chicago and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration published a study in Nature Plants entitled “Simulating Agriculture in a Modern Dust Bowl Drought,” investigating the potential for drought-induced agricultural losses from global warming. They concluded that the advent of conditions similar to those in the 1930s Dust Bowl would have “unprecedented consequences” despite the growth of ecological science. Joshua Elliott, a research scientist and coauthor of the article, declared in an interview: “We expected to find the system much more resilient because 30 percent of production is now irrigated in the United States, and because we’ve abandoned corn production in more severely drought-stricken places such as Oklahoma and west Texas.… But we found the opposite: The system was just as sensitive to drought and heat as it was in the 1930s.” Today, both the scale of production and the field for the accumulation of catastrophe are much vaster, intensifying the expropriation of land, labor, and corporeal life, without any regard for reciprocity.69
Moment III: Imperialism in the Anthropocene
The Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s was the culmination of a series of ecological crises associated with the era of early monopoly capitalism, assuming particularly acute forms in white settler colonies and colonial frontier regions around the globe.70 Today in the era of monopoly-finance capital and late imperialism, vast regions of the planet are being converted into dust bowls, not through the action of the climate itself, but as a result of the logic of a global economic system that promotes the “conquest” of nature as a means to the exploitation and superexploitation of the world’s population. The global commons are being destroyed everywhere, as reflected in the burning of the Amazon, the bleaching of coral reefs, the depletion of the oceans, the mass extinction of species, and the drying up and contamination of the world’s freshwater sources. The reality is thus one of a growing planetary ecological holocaust, bearing down especially on the most vulnerable populations, particularly frontline communities and in the Global South.
Nearly half a century ago, in 1971, Barry Commoner warned that
Human beings have broken out of the circle of life, driven not by biological need, but by the social organization which they have devised to “conquer” nature: means of gaining wealth that are governed by requirements that conflict with those which govern nature. The end result is the environmental crisis, a crisis of survival. Once more, to survive, we must close the circle. We must learn to restore to nature the wealth that we borrow from it…. The world is being carried to the brink of ecological disaster not by a singular fault, which some clever scheme can correct, but by the phalanx of powerful economic, political and social forces that constitute the march of history. Anyone who proposes to cure the environmental crisis undertakes thereby to change the course of history.71
The contemporary rift between humanity and the earth’s metabolism, to which Commoner alluded, is signified by the designation of the new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, which represents a quantitative and qualitative break with all previous epochs.72 A scientific consensus is emerging that the Anthropocene began around 1950, marked by the introduction of artificial radionuclides from thermonuclear bomb testing, mass production of plastics, and, in particular, the Great Acceleration of capitalist development. The ferocious growth imperative of capital, which recognizes no limits, has led to the socioeconomic system transgressing an array of planetary boundaries, associated with climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, loss of biodiversity, freshwater depletion, pollution, the disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and chemical pollution.73 The very operations of late capitalism and imperialism are today generating a global ecological crisis, undermining the conditions that support life, raising the issue of omnicide: the destruction of life in general.
Under the dominant economic order, the earth is merely the source of “free gifts of Nature to capital,” justifying what amounts to a robbery economy.74 In this system of generalized commodity production, “quantity rules absolute” as exchange value is deemed the universal measure.75 “The essence of capitalism,” Michael Parenti explained, “is to convert nature into commodities and commodities into capital, transforming the living earth into inanimate wealth. This capital accumulation process wreaks havoc upon the global ecological system. It treats the planet’s life-sustaining resources (arable land, groundwater, wetlands, forests, fisheries, oceans, rivers, air quality) as dispensable ingredients of limitless supply, to be consumed or toxified at will.”76 The ongoing growth of this system is predicated on expanding and deepening the scope of expropriation of the environment, labor, and the corporeal life of all species. These lethal contradictions are clearly evident throughout the Earth System, including the world ocean.
Following the Second World War, industrial fishing fleets underwent a major transformation, as part of the great acceleration of capitalist operations. Over time, massive ships, equipped with state-of-the-art technologies such as sonar and GPS systems for locating fish, became the norm for industrial fishing operations. Trawlers and longlines are able to capture a record number of target fish (those species that are desired for the market). Using lines that are miles long with hundreds of hooks, as well as nets that are over a mile in circumference, these ships harvest tons of fish in a single haul—a third of which are unwanted species, including marine mammals, which are killed and discarded.77 On large ships, which are really factories at sea, the fish are processed onboard. Despite the effects of overfishing in all ocean systems in reducing fish populations, global captures of marine fish, by means of this new technology of expropriation, increased from twenty million tons in 1950 to about ninety million tons in 2000.78 While there are currently 3.5 million fishing vessels, only 1 percent of these ships account for 60 percent of seafood catch, highlighting the significant role of monopoly capital in this sector.79
These operations are extremely efficient at capturing fish, leading to widespread depletion of fish populations, as they are harvested at rates faster than they can reproduce. The scope of these actions has only worsened oceanic conditions, because as one species is fished out, firms simply move onto the next species in a process known as “fishing down the marine food webs.”80 Combined with habitat destruction due to the Earth System crisis as a whole, fisheries scientists are predicting a collapse of all marine species currently being fished by the middle of the century.81
Despite these natural limits, imperial nations are engaged in aggressive “ocean-grabbing” campaigns to expropriate as much as possible from the oceans. Through a variety of management arrangements and trade agreements, the Global North is progressively enclosing the oceans, gaining access to fisheries around the world, including those within the exclusive economic zones of nations in the South. Increasingly small-scale fishers are being blocked from access to traditional fisheries, undermining the subsistence of their families and communities.82
For many nations in the Global South, seafood is a major export to the North, supplying food for people and pets, as well as valued fertilizer to enrich depleted soils.83 For example, Thailand is the third largest global exporter of seafood commodities, which amount to over $7 billion per year.84 In order to keep costs low, especially given the additional expenses associated with ships, such as the equipment and fuel required to chase depleted fish stocks, many fishing operations in Thailand use slave labor, which is estimated to be between 145,000 to 200,000 people.85 These enslaved workers are forced to work long hours, sleep very little, receive minimal nourishment, and are bound in chains and restraints to the ships. Like the Chinese workers on the guano islands in the nineteenth century, they are physically beaten if they are working too slowly or make mistakes handling the fish. From time to time, they are sold to other fishing operations. Many of these workers migrated from places such as the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia, searching for employment, but ended up being trafficked into slave labor.86
Some of the fish being captured on these ships are being directed to shrimp aquaculture operations in order to supply needed feed for this thriving industry, which is leading to widespread marine pollution and contamination. These conditions are undermining small-scale fishers, creating a situation where the “shrimp eat better” than they do.87
The commodity fetishism associated with seafood obscures not only the expropriation of fish and the slave labor used to capture them, but also the superexploitation in the processing plants. In Thailand, these extensively Taylorized plants increase profits through the employment of low-wage children and women who head, gut, skin, fillet, peel, clean, and sort the fish. International organizations have documented the poor working conditions, the injuries, and the lack of schooling that thousands of children are receiving while employed in this industry.88
The current Earth System crisis extends from oceans to freshwater and beyond. The dynamic of imperialism and omnicide in the Anthropocene is associated with alterations in the earth’s hydrological cycle, including changes in precipitation, the drying up (and contamination) of freshwater sources, and the melting of mountain glaciers with their indispensable “water towers.”89 As climatologist James Hansen indicates, under a continuation of business as usual over the next several decades, “low latitudes during the warm seasons could become so hot and inhospitable to human livelihood as to generate an unstoppable drive for emigration. That potential future is emerging into view for regions as populated as India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia and huge swaths of Africa.”90 Under these conditions, sea-level rise, dustbowlification, and extreme weather in general will force hundreds of millions of people in low latitudes in the Global South to migrate from their homes, either in the form of internal migration within countries or mass emigration abroad. In 2017, 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes, approximately one third of these due to extreme weather. According to a World Bank study, internal migration alone in the three regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia—accounting for a little more than half the population of the Global South—will rise to 143 million by 2050.91 Meanwhile, wealthy countries, while frequently superexploiting populations in the Global South via multinational corporations, are already building walls, enhancing the militarization of borders to keep refugees (including climate refugees) out.
We live in an era of capitalist globalization without end where the struggle for diminishing freshwater runs parallel to the search for new sources of fossil fuels, which in turn heighten the carbon emissions behind climate change, resulting in the rapid heating up of the earth and increasing drought. In a kind of frenzy driven by a capitalist system that knows no restraint, there is a desperate worldwide competition to control the last remaining sources of freshwater and fossil fuels along with other scarce resources.92
Conclusion: Beyond the Robbery System
Profit upon expropriation was the key economic category that Marx used in his critique of Smith’s notion of previous stock/accumulation.93 “Smith’s theology of previous accumulation,” Perelman writes, “suggested that capitalists’ commanding position was due to their past savings”—a view that Marx debunked.94 “So-called” previous accumulation was thus for Marx simply an ideological device of classical political economy meant to disguise the reality of “the expropriation of the immediate producers.”95 From this perspective, capitalism was only possible due to the alienation or expropriation of nature, and the self-alienation or expropriation of human powers and corporeal life. Expropriation was characteristic of all previous class civilizations, but it took on a far more systematic character and assumed a vastly greater scale under capitalism, where it became part of a dyad, together with exploitation, giving rise to the capitalist juggernaut as a whole, the drive to endless exponential expansion, and finally the movement toward socialism, the negation of the negation.
In the new capitalist bourgeois society, expropriation was not the essence of the system as in tributary modes of production. Instead, it was to give rise to a whole new inner dynamic of exploitation that had its own self-propelling logic, manifested in the accumulation of capital. Exploitation in turn created the demand for ever-wider circles of expropriation, expanding the boundaries of the system. The dialectic of exploitation and expropriation that constituted capitalism was thus all the more a vicious spiral, associated with the logic of the accumulation of capital. Arising in the early modern era, capitalism led to the most brutal systems of expropriation the world has ever seen: slavery, misogyny (wife selling, burning of witches, the superexploitation of women and children), land grabbing, genocide, and the destruction of the earth, extending to the entire planet. Acutely aware of these contradictions, Marx wrote: “If money, according to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”96
It is customary in mainstream political circles (as well for some further to the left) to treat these horrors associated with the development of capitalism on a world scale as mere “birth pains,” if they are acknowledged at all. Too often, they are treated as phenomena of the distant past to be forgotten, to be papered over by a triumphalist story of capital’s inevitable rise, or to be hidden away by the “nursery tale” of so-called primitive accumulation, whereby individual capitalists rose to riches by virtue of their own abstinence, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.97
Yet, the horrors of the expropriation of the direct producers (including nonwaged workers) and the earth are not simply an “original sin,” but a constant reality of capitalism, by which it establishes its earthly domination and “polices the suffering on its borders.”98 In twenty-first-century late capitalism and late imperialism, this expropriation is in some ways going further than ever before with the deepening of imperialist value chains, whereby much of the surplus value of the entire world is siphoned off via a process of value capture, to feed the coffers of multinational corporations and the wealthy at the center of the system.99 This is accompanied by renewed battles over the misogynistic basis of private property, involving the control of women’s bodies; the resurgence of racial capitalism; and the destruction of the planet as a place of human habitation, breaking the “chain of human generations.”100
Many attempts to advance theory and practice on the left have sought to connect the Marxian theory of exploitation to other intersecting oppressions that are integral parts of the reality of historical capitalism. Our analysis suggests that making these connections requires understanding both the significance of the concept of expropriation in classical historical materialism, and the dialectic of expropriation and exploitation. In saying that the patriarchal family was the basis of all class development and of private property institutions, Engels was not going against the critique of exploitation at the center of the theory of capitalism, but recognizing that the entire development of oppression in history was rooted in the subjugation of women, which gave rise via private property to what he called “three basic forms of slavery” of slaves, serfs, and wage slaves.101 This was a history of expropriation of land, labor, and corporeal life, of which the capitalist system of exploitation was to be the most developed and most barbaric form. The various historical moments of expropriation that we have described—the industrialization of agriculture and the global metabolic rift, the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, and the imperialism of the Anthropocene—are all particular historical moments reflecting the “barbaric heart” of the system.102
“The Justice of nature,” Epicurus wrote in antiquity, “is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness [i.e.,] neither to harm one another nor be harmed.”103 Capitalism in its pursuit of abstract value destroys such reciprocity and justice at every level, going so far as to threaten the very basis of planetary existence. In fact, behind capitalist exploitation lies a wider set of inequities, consisting of various forms of expropriation or robbery that establish the boundary conditions of the system. It is here in multiple hidden abodes that we discover the secret not only of capitalist exploitation, but also of racial capitalism, misogynistic capitalism, and the creative destruction of nature.104
All of this highlights the fact that it is impossible to understand the totality of capitalist relations apart from the conditions of both exploitation and expropriation, which together generate the ensemble of oppressions that characterize the system. It is here too that we begin to understand the various interlocking aspects of capitalist domination, which require a corevolutionary praxis in response. As Henri Lefebvre pointed out, given the scope and scale of the planetary ecological crisis, it is now a matter of “revolution or death.”105
Epicurus’s “justice of nature,” requiring genuine reciprocity, is nowhere to be found within the logic of the capitalist system, despite its pretense to quid pro quo or equal exchange, which merely disguises the extremes of exploitation and expropriation that lie within it and that define its historical boundaries. In the twenty-first century, this dialectic of exploitation and expropriation without end, striving to intensify the rate of exploitation, while treating the boundaries of life as mere barriers (or frontiers) to be transgressed by capital, has led to the creative destruction of the earth, the basis of life itself. For the chain of human generations, there is only one possible response: the expropriation of the expropriators and the corevolutionary creation of a new epoch of sustainable human development—ecological socialism.106
Historians Shred NYT ‘1619 Project’ That Claims Slavery Defines America
In a series of recent interviews, prominent historians criticized The New York Times’ “1619 Project” — which describes itself as seeking “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are” — as an “unbalanced, one-sided account,” which lacks important “context and perspective” on the complexity of slavery’s role in America’s history.
“In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists,” the “1619 Project” splash page reads. “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. In the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”
Recent interviews with three highly regarded historians published by the World Socialist Web Site, which presents analysis and news from a socialist perspective, focus on the degree of historical accuracy and perspective fueling key claims made in the Times’ highly touted series and found it glaringly “biased” and at times even “anti-historical” (h/t HotAir’s John Sexton).
For the first of the interview series, published Nov. 14, WSWS spoke with Princeton University’s James McPherson, “the author of dozens of books and articles, including thePulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, widely regarded as the authoritative account of the Civil War.” Asked about his initial reaction to the “1619 Project,” McPherson delivered a rather scathing rebuke of its “biased” and “narrow view” of the country’s history:
McPherson: Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism — which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it — but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out. So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view.
In an interview published four days later, City University of New York’s James Oakes — author of two Lincoln Prize-winning books, “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of anti-slavery Politics” (2007) and “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865” (2012), as well as “The Scorpion’s Sting: anti-slavery and the Coming of the Civil War” (2014) — likewise expressed his dismay at the degree of bias and lack of context permeating the “1619 Project.”
Asked to discuss the claim that “the horrors of contemporary American capitalism are rooted in slavery,” as suggested by Matthew Desmond in a piece for the “1619 Project,” Oakes noted that the attempt to connect chattel slavery and capitalism has received “some very strong criticism from scholars in the field” and mocked the overly simplistic thinking that guides Desmond’s argument:
Oakes: There’s been a kind of standard bourgeois-liberal way of arguing that goes all the way back to the 18th century, that whenever you are talking about some form of oppression, or whenever you yourself are oppressed, you instinctively go to the analogy of slavery. At least since the 18th century in our society, in western liberal societies, slavery has been the gold standard of oppression. The colonists, in the imperial crisis, complained that they were the “slaves” of Great Britain. It was the same thing all the way through the 19th century. The leaders of the first women’s movement would sometimes liken the position of a woman in a northern household to that of a slave on a southern plantation. The first workers’ movement, coming out of the culture of republican independence, attacked wage labor as wage slavery. Civil War soldiers would complain that they were treated like slaves. Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.
In a third “1619” interview, published Nov. 28, WSWS spoke with Brown University’s Gordon Wood — author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” and “Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815” — who likewise expressed disappointment, and even disbelief, at the reductive nature of the Times’ series:
Wood: I was surprised when I opened my Sunday New York Times in August and found the magazine containing the project. I had no warning about this. I read the first essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which alleges that the Revolution occurred primarily because of the Americans’ desire to save their slaves. She claims the British were on the warpath against the slave trade and slavery and that rebellion was the only hope for American slavery. This made the American Revolution out to be like the Civil War, where the South seceded to save and protect slavery, and that the Americans 70 years earlier revolted to protect their institution of slavery. I just couldn’t believe this. I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, especially since it’s going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways.
Asked to expand on his comment about not being approached about the project, Wood said, “None of the leading scholars of the whole period from the Revolution to the Civil War, as far I know, have been consulted. ” Asked for his perspective on the relationship between the American Revolution and the institution of slavery, Wood replied:
Wood: One of the things that I have emphasized in my writing is how many southerners and northerners in 1776 thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away. You can find quotation after quotation from people seriously thinking that slavery was going to wither away in several decades. Now we know they couldn’t have been more wrong. But they lived with illusions and were so wrong about so many things. We may be living with illusions too. One of the big lessons of history is to realize how the past doesn’t know its future. We know how the story turned out, and we somehow assume they should know what we know, but they don’t, of course. They don’t know their future any more than we know our future, and so many of them thought that slavery would die away, and at first there was considerable evidence that that was indeed the case. At the time of the Revolution, the Virginians had more slaves than they knew what to do with, so they were eager to end the international slave trade. But the Georgians and the South Carolinians weren’t ready to do that yet. That was one of the compromises that came out of the Constitutional Convention. The Deep South was given 20 years to import more slaves, but most Americans were confident that the despicable transatlantic slave trade was definitely going to end in 1808.
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